A KIND OF GRIEF
By A.D. Scott. (Atria, 355 pages, $16.)
And now it is Joanne's turn. In A.D. Scott's latest installment of her Highland Gazette mystery series, intrepid reporter Joanne Ross — now married to Gazette editor John McAllister, and still recovering from head injuries suffered a couple of books ago — sets off for the north of Scotland, alone, to meet Alice Ramsay, a woman who has been accused of witchcraft.
The plot of "A Kind of Grief" doesn't take us where we think it will — witchcraft turns out to be a very small part of this book — and that's a good thing. The story is intriguing and unpredictable, centered on art, forgery and spying, and steeped in the Highlands and its dreich weather. (That is, gloomy, rainy, wearisome.)
Joanne has been looking for something important to do since leaving the Gazette, and she is also testing herself to see if her brain has healed. As she pokes around in Alice Ramsay's life and mysterious death (was it, truly, a suicide? it seems so unlikely), her reporter's instincts are back in full force, as are her courage and her pluck.
These wonderful Gazette books, so steeped with atmosphere, have been set squarely in the 1950s, but time marches on, and in this book the 1960s are looming — primarily in the chippy character of Lorna, the receptionist turned fill-in reporter, who has, much to McAllister's disapproval, "weird makeup, weird clothes, and a taste for American poetry."
She'll be a lively addition to the next book, I hope, as the Highlanders move ahead into modern times.
CUCKOO: CHEATING BY NATURE
By Nick Davies; illustrations by James McCallum. (Bloomsbury, 289 pages, $27.)
What a strange, beautiful book this is! Davies, a professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain, draws on decades of research in springy fens and bogs on the cuckoo, "Nature's most notorious cheat," to address an enduring mystery-drama of the natural world. How has the cuckoo managed, over millennia, to make, well, cuckolds of other birds? And why does it do so?
The cuckoo "never raises its own offspring," Davies writes. "Instead, it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, just one egg in each host nest. Soon after the cuckoo chick hatches, it throws the host's eggs and young out of the nest." Diminutive host birds such as reed warblers then devote themselves to raising the cuckoo chick, which soon looms over them like a "monstrous" giant. (The photos and illustrations that accompany the text are equally entertaining and disturbing.)
Observation of this practice troubled early naturalists, who wanted to believe that God had created a bucolic natural world; helped shape Darwin's theory of how species evolve and survive, and fascinates Davies. His elegant, accessible work explores how various cuckoo species and their hapless hosts have evolved "side by side" to adapt to the other's behaviors, a process that over time has ensured the success of all involved (at the expense of countless doomed jettisoned host-birds).
But "Cuckoo" goes beyond natural history to explore human history, science, art, prose and poetry as they relate to the cuckoo. It serves also as a melancholy pre-elegy. Davies writes of the precipitous decline in the cuckoo population as its habitats dwindle in Europe and Africa:
"When I was a young boy, I thought there would always be cuckoos calling to greet the spring and swifts would forever scythe the skies on hot summer days. But the alarming declines in these and many other familiar species mean that our generation will surely be the last to take the natural world for granted."
West/north metro team leader